The Economics of Flex Dieting

My readings this week brought me across this article from the New York Times. The article describes a study done by Yale researchers on whether or not monkeys could be taught how to use money.  They gave each monkey a set number of tokens they could use to exchange for food and then watched what the monkeys did.  Immediately, the monkeys began expressing preferences for certain types of food.  Some preferred Jello while others liked fruit.  This got the researchers thinking; what if the things they liked were more expensive?  So that’s what they did.  After changing the price of the offerings to make preferred items more expensive, the monkeys changed their buying habits in a manner consistent with what is called optimization (here’s another description). Basically, the monkeys bought less of their preferred foods and more of their second and third choices.

This is why as a personal trainer I structure my nutrition coaching this way when my clients are looking to take ownership of their weight. Flexible dieting gives them the ability to choose if they would rather have 5 apples, 2 chicken breasts, or one order of fries without sacrificing the greater goal of weight loss. It allows them to optimize much like the monkeys did with the tokens and like they already do with their finances.  Simply by getting people to see the economic side of nutrition, they begin to understand things better. By introducing concepts of cost, they can spend their calories more wisely.